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In honor of Women’s History Month, we celebrate Nellie Bly (the pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, 1864-1922) with this fascinating American pressed-glass bread dish from the Winterthur collection. It portrays a social champion, journalist, and world traveler, who is one of the most famous American women of the 1800s. During that period, famous heroes (and villains!) increasingly were celebrated and illustrated not only in publications such as newspapers but also were portrayed on affordable glass and ceramics.
Best known today as Nellie Bly, Cochrane was born in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, and her family relocated to Pittsburgh in 1880. Her very first literary effort was a response to a Pittsburgh Dispatch article titled “What Girls are Good For.” Though that response was not actually published, she did receive a letter from the editor requesting she write an article on the subject of girls and their spheres of life.
Next, she wrote on the theme of divorce, using her now-famous pen name, Nellie Bly, for the first time. She assumed the name on the advice of the managing editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch, George A. Madden, who got it from Stephen Foster’s popular song “Nelly Bly.” (You might note that the name in the song was spelled differently than the pen name. Apparently Madden, when sharing the name with Cochrane, misspelled “Nelly” as “Nellie.”).
Today, one wonders how Bly and Madden felt about the unfortunate and insensitive wording of Foster’s pre-Civil War (1850) song, which inappropriately stereotypes a Black woman from the South (See lyrics to Stephen Foster’s “Nelly Bly”). In the 1880s, did Bly—as a champion of women—feel the insensitivity reflected in the song lyrics and, as a privileged, well-educated white woman, take on the name in support of the fictitious Black character? Though this author is hopeful, we may never know, for sure.
Bly is perhaps best known for having herself committed to and writing an exposé on the dire conditions at the asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now known as Roosevelt Island) for the newspaper New York World in 1887. In response to her reporting, which was later published into a book titled Ten Days in a Mad-House, public outrage resulted in closure of the asylum, and in 2021, a monument by artist Amanda Matthews, titled The Girl Puzzle, in honor of Bly is set to be installed on Roosevelt Island. Bly’s hands-on approach to journalism is considered by many as a precursor to today’s investigative reporting (See Straight Pins, Ball Head Pins High‑temperature Resistant for Sew).
By 1888, she had relocated to New York. Her fascination with Jules Verne’s book Around the World in Eighty Days led her in 1889 to recreate the fictional voyage. She reported via cable, telegraph and post throughout her 72-day trip and set a new world record for circumnavigation. This momentous voyage is celebrated on the Winterthur glass bread dish.Many of the cities visited during the trip are recorded in raised letters around Bly’s portrait on that object. (“NEW YORK NOV.14 89. SOUTHAMPTON NOV. 22. BRINDISI NOV. 24. SUEZ NOV. 27. COLOMBO DEC. 8. SINGAPORE DEC. 18. HONG KONG DEC. 23. YOKOHAMA DEC. 28. SAN FRANCISCO JAN. 21 90. CHICAGO JAN. 24. PITTSBURG JAN. 25. NEW YORK JAN. 25.”)
An 1890 publicity photograph from the New York World newspaper celebrates the voyage and appears to be the inspiration for the portrait on the dish. The original caption of the image reads “Nellie Bly, The New York WORLD’S correspondent who place a girdle round the earth in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.” On the bread plate, the description regarding this momentous voyage is reduced to “AROUND THE WORLD IN 72 D’S. 6 H’S. 11 M’S…NELLIE BLY.”
Post by by Leslie B. Grigsby, Senior Curator of Ceramics & Glass, Winterthur Museum
Resting atop a worktable in the Winterthur painting conservation lab is a 4-by-5-foot diorama that depicts three doughboys in the heat of battle during World War I. Two of the figures are Black. One throws a grenade as the other drags an injured white soldier out of harm’s way. The structure beautifully captures a powerful moment of heroism and the character of its subjects.
The 80-year-old diorama, World War I, is the last of 33 created for and displayed at the American Negro Exposition, a World’s Fair-style event, held in Chicago in 1940. The event was organized to celebrate 75 years of emancipation while promoting racial understanding, and was considered to be the first opportunity Black Americans had to tell their story to the world in their own way. The dioramas, displayed in the center of the Chicago Coliseum, depicted the contributions Africans and other peoples of African descent made to world events and culture since black slaves built the Great Sphinx of Giza 4,500 years ago.
World War I may be the last in the series of dioramas, but it is certainly not the end of the story. The 20 surviving dioramas, now in the collection of the Legacy Museum at Tuskegee University, represent almost all that remains to explain an important but almost forgotten event while introducing students of color to the profession of art conservation. Correspondent Rita Braver is scheduled to tell the story during the August 30 episode of “CBS Sunday Morning.”
Supervised by African American artist Charles C. Dawson, the dioramas were created by more than 120 African American artisans in Chicago in just three months of 1940. Beyond the dioramas, the only material records of the American Negro Exposition known to exist are some posters, guidebooks, and catalogues for Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro (1851-1940). About 250,000 people paid 25 cents each to visit during the 60-day run, but due to financial troubles and attendance numbers far short of the 2 million visitors the organizers hoped for, the exposition was considered a failure. But the dioramas still have much to teach.
World War I depicts the bravery of the U.S. Army’s 369th regiment at Meuse-Argonne. Known as the Harlem Hellfighters, the soldiers were especially feared by their German foes. The two standing figures are Needham Roberts and Henry Johnson, who were awarded the first two prix de guerre from the French for their bravery in charging the German lines to rescue their comrades.
The original subtitle to the diorama reads: “Over 380,000 Negro enlisted men and more than 1,500 Negro commissioned officers, with the rank from 2nd Lieutenants to Colonels, participated in this War. They were engaged in all offensives as combat troops and in other capacities. The highlight was the organization and participation as a unit of the first Negro combat division in American history, the 92nd or Buffalo Division. The first Americans to be honored in this war were two Negro Sergeants: Needham Roberts and Henry Johnson of the 369th Infantry Regiment. The most honored of all American regiments was the 369th Regiment of Infantry of New York.”
The diorama, like most of the 19 others delivered to the George Washington Carver Museum (now the Legacy Museum of Tuskegee University) soon after the exposition closed, was damaged in transport. Some were damaged by a fire a few years later, and all suffered from years of neglect in storage. They now offer learning opportunities for young conservators.
There is a critical need for conservators and curators of color. According to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, African Americans represent about only 1.5 percent of cultural-heritage professionals while Caucasians account for 85 percent. Barriers to entering the field of conservation are significant: There are only a few graduate programs in art conservation in the United States, and to be considered for admission, candidates need to have backgrounds in chemistry, art history, and studio art and ideally 400 hours in a conservation studio showing their patience, dexterity, and problem-solving abilities.
They can gain that experience through the Tuskegee Diorama project/HBCU Alliance of Museums and Galleries internship program. The initiative is headed by Dr. Jontyle Robinson, curator of the Legacy Museum at Tuskegee University who will be featured on the CBS segment, and Dr. Caryl McFarlane, executive consultant of the HBCU Alliance of Museums and Galleries. The pair formed the HBCU Alliance of Museums and Art Galleries in 2017 to promote diversity in the field of cultural heritage. They have been working since 2016 with Debbie Hess Norris, director of the Winterthur/University of Delaware (UD) Program in Art Conservation, and Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner, director of the UD Preservation Studies Doctoral Program and Winterthur’s adjunct paintings conservator. The Kress Foundation has supported the last three years of the diorama initiative.
The effort puts the future of Black history directly in the hands of African American students. As part of the program, Winterthur, the University of Delaware, and several other institutions, such as Yale University, have welcomed a small group of students each June since 2017 for an introduction to practical conservation (the program was delivered online during the Covid 19 pandemic this summer). The students learn by helping to remove grime, consolidate flaking plaster, and in-paint with reversible conservation retouching paints. They also research related topics and listen to presentations by Winterthur conservators in objects, textiles, books, photographs, furniture, works on paper, and preventive conservation.
When World War I arrived at Winterthur, a thick layer of dust and grime disguised its bright blue and red overall color scheme and the plaster ground was flaking. Johnson’s grenade arm had broken off; it arrived separately in a small box. Since January, other conservation interns have continued to consolidate the flaking paint and plaster, painstakingly removing decades of dust and dirt with small cosmetic sponges, correcting a repair made in 1945, and re-attaching Johnson’s arm. When finished in early 2021, the diorama will be returned to the Legacy Museum for display in the ongoing exhibition 20 Dioramas: Brightly-Lit Windows, Magically Different.
The first three dioramas that were treated at Winterthur depict the arrival of the first African slaves in Virginia in 1619, the shooting of Crispus Attucks in the Boston Massacre (the first death of the American Revolution) in 1770, and discovery of the North Pole in 1909 by explorer Matthew Henson accompanying Admiral Robert Peary. Scheduled to arrive next year is a diorama that depicts the towing of the Sphinx, which allows Winterthur and the University of Delaware the privilege of preserving the beginning and the end of the diorama stories as these objects move into their new future.
Look for more on CBS Sunday Morning on August 30.
Winterthur is further helping to train young conservators of color through the HBCU Library Alliance Preservation Internship Program, an eight-week, paid internship for seven students at seven different, nationally recognized library conservation labs. Each site contributes 50 percent of the cost for each intern, including travel, a stipend for living, and other support. Other participants in the program include Yale, Harvard, Duke, and the Library of Congress. That is tremendous support for young people from some of the most esteemed institutions in the country. It is coordinated by Winterthur library and archives conservator Melissa Tedone.
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In 1820, George Parkinson notified readers of a Philadelphia newspaper that he managed the Green House Tavern on Chestnut Street. Here he stocked the “very best liquors,” hosted clubs and parties, and boasted the best ten- pin alley for guests (1). Next door, his wife Eleanor operated a confectionery that in a mere few years eclipsed the popularity of the tavern. By the end of the decade, George joined Eleanor in running the sweet shop, where they became known for their quality treats, notably premium ice cream.
The Parkinson store sold all types of cakes, pastries, and ices (ice creams) to its patrons and catered weddings and parties. While Mrs. Parkinson’s name was printed on the store billheads, she appeared only sporadically in city directories, first as pastry cook and confectioner in the early 1820s and then briefly in the mid-1840s as confectioner, with husband George more frequently recorded as the proprietor for most of the 1820s and 30s. Beginning in 1840, George retired (as denoted by his gentleman status) in favor of sons, Robert and James, running the business (2). They quickly made improvements by enlarging the footprint of the shop to allow for more patrons (3). Elder son Robert remained with the business for several years before leaving to become a druggist. James continued as a confectioner for decades after and cofounded the Confectioner’s Journal, the first professional culinary journal in the United States. A third son, William, worked for a brief time in the store as a teenager, as evidenced by his signature on an 1830 invoice accepting a client’s payment, but unfortunately died young at the age of 24.
While son James is the most well-known offspring, daughter Elizabeth also followed in her mother’s footsteps. In 1847, she partnered with confectioner Griffith Jones to run the Chestnut Street shop when James opened a separate location on South Eighth Street. She traded on the family name, reminding patrons that she hoped “her efforts to serve the public for many years past in her parents’ store will be rewarded by a liberal patronage on her own entrance into business.” (4) She and Jones advertised more exotic fare, such as Turkish sherbets and treats from London and Paris, than her mother did years earlier. The partnership lasted only four years with the dissolution leading to an 1851 auction of store fixtures, implements and utensils, and furnishings that included eight imported mirrors, Brussels and Saxony carpets, London prints, French vases, and mahogany furniture made by Cook and Parkin, a successful Philadelphia firm in the 1820s known for its Classical style pieces. Quite the establishment!
What happened to Eleanor when her husband retired and her children joined the family enterprise? She may have still been involved in the store, but she also diversified and expanded her reach. Interestingly, Eleanor’s brief reappearance as confectioner in city directories in the mid-1840s coincided with the publication of her cookbook The Complete Confectioner, Pastry-Cook, and Baker. By the time of publication, Parkinson had cultivated a loyal clientele base and a rock-solid reputation for over two decades that easily translated into strong sales prompting multiple printings over several years. Her cookbook was modeled on an English one, although with recipe modifications based on her years of experience. Among the five-hundred recipes included in the volume were over fifty for ice cream, the treat she was particularly known for.
Ice cream had been part of the American diet going back many decades, with Thomas Jefferson famously serving it at the White House after becoming a fan during his time in France in the 1780s. Street vendors frequently sold ice cream, but an inferior product made with more milk than cream—the “legitimate article,” according to Parkinson. She counseled readers of her cookbook to “obtain your cream invariably fresh from a dairyman who is tenacious of his reputation….it cannot be too good.” (5) Her section on ice cream separates the confection into three categories. Cream ices consisted of cream, juice or pulp of fresh or preserved fruit, and syrup or sugar. These ingredients, along with six eggs to each quart of cream and mostly flavored by nuts and liqueurs, composed custard ices. Cream was not needed for water ices that were made from pulp or juice of fruit, syrup, lemon juice, and water.
Eleanor Parkinson passed away in 1856. Despite her entrepreneurial history, newspaper notices of her death made no mention of her occupation and place in the Philadelphia culinary scene. Thankfully history will not forget this pioneering woman confectioner. Next time you eat a dish of ice cream, raise your spoon to Eleanor Parkinson.
Post by Jeanne Solensky, Andrew W. Mellon Librarian, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library
(1) Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, November 28, 1820, 2.
(2) Information and dates in this paragraph and several in subsequent ones were culled from various Philadelphia city directories available through the Internet Archive, accessed April 2020.
(3) Godey’s Lady’s Book, January 1840.
(4) Public Ledger, May 26, 1847, 2.
(5) Parkinson. The Complete Confectioner, Pastry-Cook and Baker. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 184
This is the fifth post in a blog series about one Winterthur Fellow’s experience in the Winterthur Fellowship Program
When you’ve been out of graduate school for a few years, or a few decades, it can feel a little daunting to step back into the academic world. There are so many norms, so many unspoken assumptions, so many things you don’t know that you don’t know. For someone like me, who lives pretty squarely in the market-driven commerce world, all of those differences and expectations can trip you up. Everyone expects that you will know things. Know what to ask, and whom to ask. Know how “things are done” and what things are not done.
I can imagine it is a real challenge for Winterthur staff to deal with those of us who come from outside the world of academia. They don’t know what we don’t know, after all! So kudos to the program staff and collections folks as they work to inform and support us. There were lots of gaps that had to be filled as I muddled my way forward, and things I was taken aback by since no one thought to tell me ahead of time. But the general good humor and real desire to make this a good experience on the part of almost everyone I encountered has made the bumpy road much smoother.
Above all else, the doors are open here at Winterthur. The people you need to talk to are available and have the answers you need. As a rule, they don’t seem to think you are bothering them as you ask the umpteenth question. That makes it easier to ask the umpteen-and-first…
A Cool Thing I Found in the Collection:
You sail off to China from Boston with orders in hand to purchase hundreds of bolts of silk for import. Months later, you get to Canton and visit the well-known fabric dealers near the port. Just like today’s wholesalers, they have a nice little sample card ready. It’s wonderful to see the bright colors of these fabrics two hundred years after they were manufactured. I can just picture the supercargo fingering the swatches as he haggles over the price. Makes me think about what little bits of ephemera we save today that will be cool for someone to see two hundred years from now.
Post by Pamela F. Wik-Grimm, Maker/Creator Research Fellow, Winter 2020
This is the fourth post in a blog series about one Winterthur Fellow’s experience in the Winterthur Fellowship Program
From the Winterthur website: “Named for Winterthur’s first curator, the Downs Collection contains about 3,000 record groups…including personal and business accounts in the form of diaries, family papers, tax records, and letter books of craftspeople and merchants. In addition, the Downs Collection contains drawings (architectural, artistic, and amateur); wills and household inventories; children’s toys and games; scrapbooks and journals; and fabric swatch books.”
How could you not want to dive head first into that?! The problem for the researcher is not so much finding something to work on, it’s deciding what to leave out. It makes me smile to think about how passionate the librarians and curators are about the materials they conserve. Their engagement led me in new directions (and opened new ideas for next time) as they wanted to show me things they thought would be interesting and helpful. It’s one of the cool things about being here, you are working with other people who geek out about this stuff as much as you do. Faded 19th-century copperplate documents listing trade rates in Calcutta in 1812? Bring it on!
The Downs Collection, like so many archives of ephemera, is a truly random collection. While there are many groupings of items from family donations, even those sets of things are incomplete and contain a random sampling of objects. There is no constructing a complete record of a voyage, for example, as only one or two related papers out of the veritable mountain of documents needed to record all aspects of the enterprise are housed at Winterthur. So each document or item is a mere glimpse into a missing whole. It is both tantalizing and frustrating!
It all does leave me contemplating our own “leavings.” In this digital age, what are we leaving behind that will tell the future about who we are? What bits will tend to survive, and how will they shape cultural research in the 22nd century? Should we as individuals be deliberate about that and start to set aside the “hard copy” stuff that tells our story more fully? After all, you never know what your heirs might donate to Winterthur someday!
A cool thing I found in the Collection:
One of the less well-known aspects of American merchant and whaling history is that members of the Society of Friends were pretty major players. They owned ships and trading organizations, not to mention factories and warehouses, in ports all over the east coast and in Britain. Some of the biggest names in commerce today (such as Cadbury’s) had their origins in Quaker family enterprises. The Winterthur collection includes a number of papers from Abraham Bell & Co., a New York merchant house, and I can just imagine a clerk sitting at his desk scratching out these documents in 1841 as they are paying off the ship’s crew.
Post by Pamela F. Wik-Grimm, Maker/Creator Research Fellow, Winter 2020
This is the third post in a blog series about one Winterthur Fellow’s experience in the Winterthur Fellowship Program
The first thing you notice as you unlock the door to Foulsham House, where research fellows live at Winterthur, is that you’ve got some pretty cushy digs for the next month. Comfy room? Check. Fully stocked kitchen? Just bring your groceries. Laundry facilities? You’ve got no excuse for, well, you get the idea…
Living at Winterthur on and off for a month has been a retreat from all of the million details of my normal life, which has been an education in and of itself. It’s astonishing how many things you can just let go for weeks at a time and the world does not fall apart. It bears contemplating… (insert smiley face emoji). Solving the simple problems of remembering to bring your lunch to stick in the refrigerator and whether to dress for the day in the bathroom after yoga class or go back “home” to change, forms the bulk of my daily “living” at the moment. That leaves me plenty of room for scratching my head about exactly which items to request from the archives to transcribe, photograph, ponder how to use, etc. That brain space is really the gift of the fellowship as much as access to the materials and the helpful support of the Winterthur staff. When the day’s biggest issue is whether to select a coastal trip or a voyage to China as the core of the prototype data, your world becomes much more focused.
There is a sense of urgency imparted by the looming end of the fellowship, in my case that was four weeks away from the day I turned the key at Foulsham House. I live in upstate New York, so it’s not like I couldn’t come back for a day here or there to look at things I missed while on site. But I know that once I return to my life, this project will take a backseat to all of the other things that fill my time. The deadline is more than just a promise to myself and the program. It is the practical finish to the development phase of the work. Like the threat of being hanged in the morning, to quote Samuel Johnson, nothing concentrates the mind of a researcher quite like the knowledge that you will soon have to turn in your keys.
The ease of living at Winterthur, getting around, getting help, finding what you need, and doing the work, makes it all possible. I won’t miss the isolation when I head home, but I am immensely grateful for this time when I am able to step out of things and do meaningful work.
A cool thing I found in the collection:
As the home of the wealthy du Pont family, the collection of objects at Winterthur naturally includes a great number of items more common in “great houses.” This elegant tea table makes me smile both from the whimsy of the design and how specific it is to the purpose. There is no use for this table beyond serving tea to a group of people. And even for that, it is somewhat clumsy. But, why not?!
Post by Pamela F. Wik-Grimm, Maker/Creator Research Fellow, Winter 2020
This is the second post in a blog series about one Winterthur Fellow’s experience in the Winterthur Fellowship Program
From my fellowship application: As the author of the Captain Jane Thorn historical maritime fiction series, I have two main goals: the first is, of course, to entertain the reader; the second is to introduce the reader to the world of the 1820s and the reality of maritime trade. I strive to base the books on actual people and events, including the documented voyages of trading vessels, as a way to make history come alive…
My aim with this project is twofold: in the first instance, I will be building a resource for my own use as I continue the book series; secondly, I will be creating a resource that both makes the log data available to all researchers, and brings together other resources at the Winterthur that add depth and color to the log data. For example, the log of a barkentine’s trip to China will include transcripts of the logs, plotted map coordinates, images of the logbooks themselves, images of a barkentine, images of the captain if available, and so on. This database will be created through Google Earth and may be made available publicly through Winterthur. Thus, materials in the archives (primarily the Joseph Downs Collection of Printed Ephemera) may become not only available online, but will include context.
A number of researchers have taken on the task of transcribing ship’s log data in the past. Most well-known is the Maury data. Lt. Matthew Maury, first superintendent of the US Naval Observatory (1842 to 1861), worked on abstracting old logbooks to create atlases and charts intended to improve shipping routes. His greatest contribution was a logbook template, used widely by printers around the country, that arranged entries in accordance with rules that enable standardized selection and abstraction of the data. The proposed project will build on the standards set for both the Maury data and other digitization projects such as Old Weather, but will include additional resources and information that makes the data more useful for writers and humanities researchers.
A cool thing I found in the Collection:
The fact was, you had a pretty good chance of dying at sea in 1804. For the average seaman, that meant having your personal possessions auctioned off to the rest of the crew. It strikes me how little “Nelson” left behind.
Post by Pamela F. Wik-Grimm, Maker/Creator Research Fellow, Winter 2020
The first in a blog series about one Winterthur Fellow’s experience in the Winterthur Fellowship Program
I discovered a few years ago that the only thing more fun than reading a good book is writing one. You get to tell the kinds of stories you enjoy and follow your characters around almost as an extension of yourself. When I sit down to write, I gravitate to the world of merchant trade during the age of sail, as I am a sailing captain myself. In my modern world, I teach keelboating and run sailing charters, but my protagonist, Captain Jane Thorn, takes her schooner out into the wider world and makes money for the family business off smart deals and her wits.
As an author, it is important to me that my readers learn something interesting about the history of the time, especially about women in that world. So off I went on a research journey through maritime libraries on the east coast, eventually landing at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library as the online catalog indicated that the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera contained a number of ship’s journals and merchant family papers. And it was a gold mine! The two days I spent feverishly transcribing and poring over two-hundred-year-old documents gave me the core of the voyage that takes Captain Jane and her schooner to Cuba, St. Petersburg (Russia), and home to New York.
While I was working with the awesome library staff at Winterthur, they suggested I might look into the Maker/Creator Fellowship Program and come back with a larger project in mind. Two books later, I decided it was time. I knew what I needed as an historical fiction author, and thought there might be a larger audience for the material―I’ll talk more about the project in another post. It was a terrific process to put together the fellowship application with the enthusiastic support of the program director. Working up and reworking the project goals and approach was itself a challenge, I must say! But the final proposal was specific enough to give me a defined plan while leaving room for things to evolve as I gained a better sense of the available materials.
As I reached the end of the research phase of the project, I had to force myself to focus as there are at least a hundred other exciting projects buried in the Winterthur Archives!
A cool thing I found in the collection:
One of the earliest challenges of the young United States was the control of its borders basically, its coasts (and of course the leaky border with Canada to the north). The regulation of trade across those borders was of paramount importance and hotly disputed (see War of 1812) for years to come. One method of keeping track of things was the issuing of licenses for coastal trade, fishing, and so on. Just like today, 19th-century captains had to have their papers in order if they were stopped by Customs officers!
Post by Pamela F. Wik-Grimm, Maker/Creator Research Fellow, Winter 2020
A rare painting by Robert S. Duncanson, an African American
artist identified by antebellum critics as the “best landscape painter in the
West,” is now part of the Winterthur collection.
study day, Discovering Duncanson, will be held on December 6, 2019,
featuring prominent scholars Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Ph.D., University of
Pennsylvania, and Dr. Martha Jones, Ph.D., John Hopkins University.
Landscape in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee, was painted by Duncanson circa 1851–53. The picture
shows a panoramic view with a stream, pasture, and mountains inspired by the
southern Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee. It is an outstanding composition
in pristine condition for its age and equals or surpasses many examples of the
mid-19th century American school of landscape painting. This canvas constitutes a crucial addition to the
Winterthur collection, which had not included a painting representative of this
major movement in American culture. Duncanson’s painting also contributes to
Winterthur’s growing collection of needlework, furniture, and other works of
art and material culture created by African Americans, thus constructing a more
inclusive view of artistic creation in 19th-century America at Winterthur. The
painting will be on view in the galleries in early December.
A man with an interesting road to artistic prominence, Robert
Seldon Duncanson was born in 1821 in Fayette, New York, the grandson of Charles
Duncanson (ca. 1745–1828), a freed enslaved man from Virginia. The family had
moved into the Military Tract of Central New York, where the federal government
granted land to Revolutionary War veterans, suggesting that Charles may have
earned his freedom for his military service. Duncanson’s family later moved to
Monroe, Michigan, a thriving commercial town at the western end of Lake Erie.
After apprenticing in the family trade of house painting, decorating, and
carpentry, he formed his own firm of painters and glaziers in Monroe in 1838 in
association with a man named John Gamblin. The firm stopped advertising in 1839
probably because Duncanson had decided to move to Cincinnati.
A city at the crossroad of major East and West
transportation routes and on the border between the North and the South,
Cincinnati was then becoming a leading economic and cultural center west of the
Appalachian Mountains. The bourgeoning city would produce some of the most
important artistic and cultural figures of the time, including Hiram Powers,
Lilly Martin Spencer, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In spite of Ohio’s Black Laws,
pervasive racial discrimination, and racial violence, it was a stronghold of
abolitionism and became home to a short-lived but thriving African American
community attracted by the opportunities it offered. Within this community, a
small middle class emerged. It established churches, schools, and benevolent
societies and it included an active group of African American artists. Duncanson’s
career is an integral part of the city and its community’s history.
Between 1850 and 1852, Duncanson undertook several sketching
trips, traveling up the Ohio River through Pennsylvania, New York, and
Michigan, and south to Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, where he
travelled at least to Asheville. One of the earliest known landscapes from this
period, A View of Asheville, North
Carolina (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), is signed and dated from the year
1850. The following year, Duncanson exhibited another southern composition, The French Broad, North Carolina, at the
Western Art-Union gallery, where the work was praised as one of Duncanson’s
best pictures. Landscape in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee, was painted exactly during this period;
the canvas stamp on its back was used by the manufacturer only between 1850 and
1853. The painting in its outstanding condition offers a direct encounter with
the rising talent of this extraordinary artist.
here for a special study day, Discovering Duncanson, on December 6, 2019,
with prominent scholars to explore and examine this important and rare artist
and his art work.
About the Speakers
Professor Martha S. Jones is
the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at
Johns Hopkins University. She is a legal and cultural historian whose work
examines how black Americans have shaped the story of American democracy.
Professor Jones holds a doctorate in history from Columbia University and a juris
doctor degree from the CUNY School of Law. Prior to the start of her academic
career, she was a public interest litigator in New York City. Professor Jones
is the author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in
Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press in 2018) and All Bound Up
Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture 1830-1900 (University
of North Carolina Press, 2007) and a coeditor of Toward an Intellectual
History of Black Women (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
Professor Jones is recognized as a public historian who writes frequently for
broader audiences at outlets including The Washington Post, The
Atlantic, USA Today, Public Books, the Chronicle of Higher
Education, and Time. She has also curated museum exhibitions
including Reframing the Color Line and Proclaiming Emancipation in
conjunction with the William L. Clements Library, and collaborations with the
Smithsonian’s and collaborations with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the Charles Wright Museum
of African American History, the Southern Poverty Law Center, PBS, Netflix, and
Arte (France). Professor Jones currently serves as a president of the Berkshire
Conference of Women Historians, and on the Organization of American Historians
Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw is an
Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Pennsylvania, who
studies race, gender, sexuality, and class in the art of the United States,
Latin America, and the Caribbean. She received her doctorate in art history
from Stanford University, then held an appointment as an assistant professor of
art history and African and African American Studies at Harvard University for
five years before joining to the University of Pennsylvania in 2005. She has
been a fellow at the National Portrait Gallery. Her recent publications include
“Andrew Wyeth’s Black Paintings,” in Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect,
published by Yale University Press; “Family and Fortune in Early African
American Life and Representation,” in the exhibition catalog, Artist and
Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed, from the Fenimore Art Museum,
Cooperstown, New York; and “Creating a New Negro Art in America,” in Transition
108, published by the W. E. B. DuBois Institute for African and African
American Research and University of Indiana Press. Among other exhibitions she
has helped to organize, she co-curated the exhibition Represent: 200 Years
of African American Art, which highlighted selections from the Philadelphia
Museum of Art’s exceptional holdings of African American art.
“Why did I agree to this,” he wondered, frowning, as he walked
down the long hallway toward the parlor. Although he’d never admit it, even to
himself, he knew exactly why he’d agreed to fill in last minute for a no-show
Santa: the sweetness in the eyes of the woman who’d asked him to do it.
Lila had caught his attention the few other times he’d been
inside. He’d always had to force himself to shift his gaze from the warm smile
she cast. Her trim figure, always in motion, was flattered by her uniform; the
graceful movement, mesmerizing to him. He tried to push the vision out of his
head after each encounter as there was no reasonable way for him to get to know
her better or contrive to run into her more often.
He paused to glance at his reflection in a large gilt-framed
mirror and sighed. “I don’t even look believable.” He was thinner than one
would expect a Santa Claus to be, his moustache and hair a little too stiff and
long, his boots a dull brown and still crusted with mud from working in the estate’s
woods and fields. Reaching the doorway, he hesitated a moment before stepping
gingerly onto the expensive rug.
She was already in the room. “Come in!” she said brightly,
turning at the sound of movement. Oh that smile! “Don’t worry about the
rug. The children will be dropping popcorn and crumbs everywhere, so it will need
to be cleaned anyway,” she said cheerfully. He was grateful to her for putting
him at ease so quickly, and tried to shrug off wondering how awkward he must
have looked for her to know right away what was troubling him. “That chair is
for you,” she said pointing to a rustic wooden rocker placed in front of the
“How stupid of me,” he thought. “Obviously that chair is for
me, but here I just stand like a dolt waiting for her to tell me where to sit.”
He glanced around the area, taking in the display of wealth.
Tasteful and understated though it was, no detail could be found lacking. The
furniture had been moved to the perimeter or maybe some of it had been taken
out; he wasn’t familiar with this room. A buffet table on the right wall held
arrangements of treats served in silver or crystal bowls and on ornate
platters. A gramophone stood waiting to blare holiday standards.
The Christmas tree in the corner was a bit spindly compared
with the others placed throughout the mansion, but still dazzling with several
kinds of tinsel covering the branches. Under it, a store’s worth of gifts crowded
the chair: dolls in carriages, large-scale model trains, tricycles, musical
instruments, and sports equipment dwarfed a pile of smaller goods hidden from
view inside fancy ribbon-topped boxes.
He turned and settled into the chair in time to see Lila
leave. No sooner had she gone than a gaggle of awe-struck children began
filling the room. They ranged in age from about four to maybe 10 years old, and
it seemed there were too many of them for him to count, all wordlessly looking
back and forth from the tree with its towering piles of gifts to the table with
its towering piles of sweets.
Lila breezed back into the room and cheerfully instructed
the children to line up to visit Santa and select a gift from under the tree,
unperturbed by the jostling for position that ensued. Some of the children
shoved to the back decided to change course, going for first dibs on the sweets
instead. One extremely shy boy clung to the wall, not willing to step into
The first several children, proud of themselves for having
the largest selection of gifts from which to choose, sat on his lap for mere
seconds before jumping down to grab their prizes. Those who had been waiting
longer had either resigned themselves to a second choice item or spent the time
noticing Santa’s inadequate appearance, then spending their turn lending their
voices to his internal worries.
As the line dwindled, he glance to his right out of the
corner of his eye and saw that the shy boy still kept close company with the
wall. When the last child had climbed down from his lap and run off with a gift,
he sighed again, glad the afternoon was almost over but wondering what to do
about the shy child. He looked around for help, but Lila wasn’t in the room. He
smiled at the boy and gestured for him to come over. Eyes wide, the boy edged
closer. He looked around for something the boy might like and grabbed the last
“This is for you,” he said. The boy took another hesitant
step. He smiled broadly, and the boy moved close enough to touch the bike. He
leaned back in the rocker, satisfied that his day playing Santa had come to a
close. But to his great amazement, the boy suddenly climbed into his lap, rested
his head on the white fluffy trim of the Santa suit, and fell asleep.
“John! I’m glad you’re–” Lila stopped, surprised. “I’m
sorry, I thought they’d all gone. Let me take him back to his mother,” she
continued in a whisper. “I came to let you know we’re having a gathering in the
staff lounge. I was hoping you’d join me.”
He looked up from the small boy snuggled in his lap to the woman he thought about for so long now standing in front of him. “Nothing would make me happier.”
Post by Meredith Prince, winner of the Winterthur Yuletide Creative Writing Contest